How the Nike-Kaepernick alliance could change the game

The words “corporate” and “social responsibility” are often viewed as incompatible. Many corporate forays into the area of social responsibility and community assistance come with a quietly kept revenue growth strategy. However, there are instances where corporate action has the legitimate intent to do what is just without regard to the bottom line.

Despite open-mouthed skepticism, the newly announced alliance between Nike and former pro athlete and full-time social justice advocate Colin Kaepernick looks like one such example.

Why? First, there are voices of support out there that the kneeling NFL player-activists could have never dreamed of at this time last year. Those voices range from the known array of organized and committed groups like Black Lives Matter to people like Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke and the rest of the burgeoning progressive political movement.

Support for the players’ methods also come from an assortment of military veteran organizations and first responder groups, to Hollywood icons, sports celebrities and, even in the many polls, where ordinary Americans, by a majority vote, say that kneeling is not unpatriotic. Nike and Kaepernick can provide the glue that melds these voices of disparate origin.

Second, though at first glance it’s easy to consider such a marketing campaign as a ploy, I see the Nike and Kaepernick alliance shortly being viewed as genuine in the hearts and minds of America. The Nike market overwhelmingly consists of young people, amenable to social change, while most protesters consist of folks outside Nike's target market, and thus outside the Kaepernick sphere of influence.

Already, critics of the alliance have demonstrated their ire by setting Nike products ablaze in protest. It is, of course, possible that some sort of sales backlash that will affect the company’s bottom line. But I consider such talk to be premature. The recent and brief stock sell-off is an example of Wall Street’s miscalculation and misunderstanding of the true Nike nation consisting of faithful buyers and new converts who are dedicated to the causes Kaepernick, activist athletes and their disciples espouse.

In the end, Nike will thrive, in large part, due to this tilt towards the arc of justice.

Of course, President Trump and his base are not going away. The Kaepernick-Nike connection on its surface provides detractors with a new rationale for criticism. In some minds, corporate support for Kaepernick’s social justice renders his crusade phony and illegitimate.

The line of logic goes like this: Because Nike is all about profit, the alliance must be a fraudulently opportunistic one, devoid of any real dedication to anything but the almighty dollar.

Others believe Nike is playing with fire in publicly tugging on the cape of its new eight-year sponsorship partner, the NFL. However, I see ultimate NFL acquiescence in some form, especially in the light of increased sales and an enhanced profile.

Nevertheless, if Nike and Kaepernick can galvanize the urgent but disparate voices for justice, control of the narrative will surely shift away from the NFL.

Of course, Nike will assuredly have to put its house in pristine condition, if they have not already done so. Any hint of past or present worker exploitation must be eliminated, and universal worker conditions must become model. Their recent executive purge is a sign of a positive corporate cultural change that is mandatory when a corporation pursues an external crusade for fairness and equality.

Nike also has to navigate the complex new terrain of money in politics. In Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, a conservative non-profit organization sought to enjoin the FEC from preventing them from sponsoring a right-wing documentary critical of Hillary Clinton, based on a law limiting corporate political campaign funding or otherwise fund speech of a political nature.

The Supreme Court overturned that law and allowed unrestricted corporate political funding, based on First Amendment considerations. That ruling kicked open the door to corporate funding of political campaigns and thus undue corporate influence on the political process.

Nike and Kaepernick are embarking on a similar type of corporate political speech voyage. The resources and reach of Nike are formidable. In the current culture war between Trump and his base of supporters and the forces for social justice that use Kaepernick and athletes, among others, as the face of the struggle, Nike’s power and influence could be the social justice activist answer to Citizens United.

As many NFL players have said, they are not protesting our national anthem but raising awareness of nationwide injustices against people of color; they say fans and observers who claim otherwise are not listening. Kaepernick, with Nike’s push, will amplify that message.

The Nike media and communications clout will help, not harm, the cause. More importantly, regardless of the level of corporate involvement, the righteousness of the cause itself will not go away.

Elmore is a former ABA and NBA player, lawyer and is currently senior lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies sports management program.

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